October 25, 2013

Space Tourism By Hot Air Balloon Coming

 An artist's rendering of World View Enterprises' design for a capsule lifted by a high-altitude balloon up 19 miles into the air for tourists.
World View Enterprises announced plans Tuesday to send people into the stratosphere using a hot air balloon, in place of any sort of rocket.

Jane Poynter, CEO of the Tucson, Arizona-based firm says that the 4-hour trip 19 miles up costs $75,000. While actual space starts at roughly 62 miles up, Poynter’s balloon, which will use existing technology, still requires approval from the Federal Aviation Administration. Poynter hopes to have trips booked as early as late 2016.

“There are balloons this size that have already flown up many, many times for decades,” Poynter said, adding that “From a technical point of view this is incredibly doable, low risk.”

Typical space tourism of late involves a rocket, with companies like SpaceX developing orbital vacation packages. SpaceX is presently working on their own rocket family called Falcon, along with a capsule named Dragon, capable of sending up to seven people to any space station. Test flights have been underway and an unmanned variant of Dragon became the first commercial spacecraft to successfully rendezvous with the International Space Station, in May, 2012.

Thing is, no suborbital trips have yet been made with a rocket-based system, which is a selling point of using a balloon. Also, so far, privately going to space has cost of at least $20 million.

Poynter points out that the main virtue of a balloon trip is to get an excellent look at the curvature of the earth. The balloon would ascend at about 1,000 feet per minute, float for about 2 hours, and then descend, which would take an additional 40 minutes. Poynter says that the capsule would be large enough for 8 passengers to get up and walk around.

Scott Pace, formerly of NASA and now space policy director at George Washington University, calls the project technically doable, but wonders if there would be a market for these sorts of trips. He calls the plan “an interesting market test.”

Poynter is confident that there’s a market, with other firms like Virgin Galactic pre-selling tickets for their space trips. Poynter, who also runs the space firm Paragon Space Development Corporation, claims that “Space tourism is here to stay.”

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